Kill ’em or kill ’em: Gianforte tries to bully Yellowstone National Park into more bison slaughter

October 19, 2023 4:23 am

Bison walking through deep snow near Tower Jct.; Jim Peaco; March 2008; Catalog #19246d; Original #IMG_8146 (National Park Service)

There are names for people who want to kill animals for revenge. In Montana, we call them “governor.”

To be fair, we also call them the head of the Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the leader of the state Department of Agriculture.

As much that can be said about the concept of killing animals to show the feds how tough you really are, I give Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte credit for one thing: He has clearly articulated exactly where he stands.

The Gianforte Administration is displeased with a Yellowstone National Park plan that would limit the bloodbath or slaughter of its wild bison that had the misfortune of being mowed down as they wandered out the park’s protective boundaries last winter, shot execution-style by hunters – and I use that term very loosely – sitting just beyond the park’s line.

For those of you unfamiliar, the bison in Yellowstone represent several notable things. They are among the last herd of free-roaming bison still in America, protected by the confines and boundaries of the national park where they’re safe from hunters.

When they’re in the park, they are a massive tourist attraction, and park staff work the better half of the year keeping unwitting world visitors to the park away from the “fluffy cows,” which those same clueless tourists mistake as zoo animals that can be approached. But as nature would have it, these massive animals adopted by Congress as our national mammal are absolutely awful at reading maps, and they have a tendency to wander beyond the border of the park, especially in winter, looking for food.

And that’s where the trouble begins.

In some cases, the moment these bison step foot outside the park, they’re a target for slaughter. More than a thousand were killed like that this winter, reducing the herd drastically, and causing alarm among wildlife leaders and advocates.

Unhappy with festering gut piles from the “hunt,” even though there was no fair chase involved, the Gianforte administration isn’t satisfied with number of bison slaughtered.

It thinks there should be more.

To justify its position, the Gianforte Administration hides behind the mostly debunked concern that bison spread brucellosis to cattle — something that happens in reality more with elk, another species the Gianforte Administration likes to kill.

Yellowstone National Park officials want to build the bison herd numbers and avoid the debacle of last year. It’s a tough look for America’s premiere national park to have a trail of bison entrails right outside of the park, the remnants of its prized bison herd, killed unceremoniously.  It kind of undercuts that whole preservation aspect of the park.

Meanwhile, the Gianforte Administration has decided that if Yellowstone National Park officials don’t give in to Montana officials’ demands, the state will remove a years-old policy of “tolerance zones” for the animals, making it even easier to kill bison that wander out of the park in search of food.

In other words, the state is willing to renege on its deal, and make the animals pay with their lives for what is a rational policy decision by federal officials.

The tolerance zones provide just a little extra buffer for the animals who wander out of the park. They’re meant to give just a bit more protection to the beloved animals so they’re not killed the moment a hoof steps across the line.

Ironically, as America is tuning into the majestic documentary by celebrated cinematographer and documentarian Ken Burns on bison, the best example of the free-range animal is being threatened with more slaughter because of a petty political disagreement.

For an administration that can’t quit talking about the importance of business, the Gianforte administration seems to discount the role tourism plays in our state, the second largest sector. Why does it seem like the critters the Gianforte administration wants to hunt, trap, or slaughter are the same ones that draw hundreds of thousands to Treasure State every year? Think about it – grizzly bear, wolves, mountain lion and bison – all targets of what appears to be a literal bloodthirsty administration.

Either way, it seems like these majestic animals will pay with their blood. If the park officials stand firm on their plan to conserve bison numbers beyond what Montana leaders want, they’ll be slaughtered. And, if Yellowstone National Park officials cave into the state’s demands, more bison will be “harvested,” the fancy term for slaughtered.

Montanans have become accustomed to this sort of testosterone overdrive. This has nothing to do with hunting and the ethics of fair chase, which I respect and support. Instead, this is a policy being driven by a leader who has been ticketed for his own hunting missteps, and a man who sees nothing wrong with “hunting” a wolf that was trapped and likely injured for his own pleasure, if such a word can even be used.

For an administration and leader who likes to crow so much about the sanctity of life, threatening to kill animals as political payback seems like an odd way to show respect for it.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.